Campus Sexual Assault: the Educational Experience I Never Wanted

The University of British Columbia University Sexual Assault Panel‘s report, which provides recommendations for both the university’s stand-alone policy as well as their sexual assault action plan, goes to President Martha Piper today, and it will have its public release at a date soon to be determined. I have spent the past three months working weekly with a group of excellent and committed UBC faculty members on this report. We have all put in more hours than originally anticipated, and in the last few weeks in particular I have been living and breathing this report every single day. This has been difficult, and I must emphasize, completely voluntary work. It has been work that comes with more costs than it does rewards.

And there have been costs for me, ones that I cannot even yet fully grasp.

While it has been a choice to go public and to advocate for change around sexual assault in educational institutions, it has also changed my life irrevocably, and not always for the better. I have given up my privacy. In many cases, I have given up my dignity: the most traumatic incidents of my life have become fodder for trolls on the internet. In being such a vocal critic of universities, I have also potentially signalled my liability as an employee in academic spaces. I do not have the protection of job security or the academic freedom that comes with a tenured position. I have tried to do all of this work while also balancing my research and my teaching. It is financially precarious, emotionally and intellectually arduous, and often frighteningly lonely.

In doing this work, I have also lived and re-lived some of the most humiliating and traumatizing incidents of my life. It is no coincidence that of the six incidents of sexual assault I have experienced since 2002, five of them have taken place on the campuses of educational institutions, UBC included. As is evident by so many of the stories coming out in the press, educational spaces are ones in which violence often goes un-checked, or worse, covered-up. Policies are lacking. Resources are non-existent or understaffed. Education around responding to disclosures is not always present or consistent. In the past three months, as I have had to give more thought to how UBC should be better equipped to respond to reports and disclosures of sexual assault, I have thought about my own assault that took place at UBC more than five years ago, one that I pushed as far into the recesses of my mind as possible so that I could focus on my doctoral degree.

I should say that deciding not to deal with that sexual assault more or less succeeded. To the outside world, anyway. In the years after my assault in 2011, I received federal funding for my scholarly work; I became a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues; I presented my work at numerous national conferences; I’ve published in top journals in my field; I’ve become a consultant on national and provincial anti-violence initiatives; I’ve sat on countless panels, given countless interviews, written countless articles. I passed my doctoral defence with only two typos as revisions. My C.V., which details the past six years of my doctoral career, reads almost flawlessly, as if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen.

A few weeks into the spring term of 2011, just over a year into my doctoral program, I was sexually assaulted in the graduate lounge of my department, by student who had recently graduated from the program. I will spare you the preamble and the gory details, not because I am ashamed, but because they don’t particularly matter, and I am, despite my public persona, an intensely private person. But what you need to know is that I was terrified. Having someone’s arm crushing your sternum, and very nearly your throat, will do that do you. And afterwards, I was lost. I sought help at the Sexual Assault Support Centre, which, at that time, was located at the back corner of the old Student Union Building, right on the edge of what used to be MacInnes Field. In order to get to the front door of the SASC, you had to walk through and past all of the SUB’s garbage and recycling bins. I hope I do not need to explain that the fact that accessing support services adjacent to the building’s trash disposals made me feel as though I, too, was trash. Having tried to report sexual assault during high-school (and getting nowhere) and reporting stalking in my time at SFU (and only getting a rape whistle and a pamphlet), I knew that I wasn’t about to try yet again to receive any sort of justice. So I said nothing. And I did my work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted, and as it turns out, wasn’t the last. Somehow, violence can take on a strange sense of ordinariness. It becomes a thing that just happens before you get back to work.

Except when you dream about it. Except when it affects every single moment of your life. Except when you’re in crowds, or small spaces, or big crowds, except when you don’t have a seat close to the exit in the room, except when someone frightens you. Except then.

If this is the way things are for me, I want things to be different for others.

Truthfully, I want to live in a world where sexual violence doesn’t exist at all, but if that can’t happen, I want to live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are supported and believed, and where there are robust systems of accountability for both perpetrators and institutions. I believe that the judicial system is flawed, and that we need better options for education and rehabilitation.

I know that I don’t have all the answers.

But what I know is this: I want to live in a world where my fellow survivors and allies do not have to file human rights complaints (Mandi Gray – York University, Glynnis Kirchmeier – University of British Columbia) against their institutions because they are being failed; where we do not have to go to the media because the schools we attend will not listen otherwise. I want to live in a world where survivors do not feel as if they have no choice but to drop out of school, as recently happened at Simon Fraser University. I want to live in a world where survivors, like Lizzy Seeberg, do not take their lives because they are, as Rehtaeh Parsons’ father put it regarding his daughter’s suicide, “disappointed to death” by systems that re-traumatize and re-violate survivors.

I know that the report will not fix everything.

Nor will the policy. Nor will all the blue phones in the world. Because horrible things still happen. Nor do I think everything at UBC is broken, either. There are many good people working in a complicated and often-broken system, one that is ultimately dependent on the fact that a university is not simply a place of learning, but also a business. There are already so many front-line workers (those at the SASC in particular, under the leadership of the incredible Ashley Bentley) and staff members who provide services to sexual assault survivors at UBC every day.

There are UBC faculty who have signed the petition demanding better for their students, and apologizing for not having done enough. They organized a fantastic day of discourse and dialogue around sexual assault in February of this year. I am grateful especially to other students who are doing such amazing work: the ones who worked tirelessly in the decades before I even arrived on campus, the ones who I have stood with in my own time as a student, the ones who take up the torch now. This journey has connected me to so many of you, not just at UBC, but across the country, and although we have come together under such awful circumstances, I am so glad and grateful to know you. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I know it’s such hard work. I keep a fire for you in my heart, always.

At the end of the day, I am not a faculty member, nor an administrator, nor a politician. I do not hold exceptional power within the UBC system. I am just a person who has been fortunate enough to hear stories that have been disclosed to me in whispers and private messages and phone calls. I am humbled by those stories, even as they keep me up at night, worried. I am just a person who has gone through some extremely difficult experiences, ones that I don’t care for anyone else to have to go through. That these experiences have occurred in the context of my schooling is painful; painful because school has otherwise been a place of joy for me, painful because sexual violence formed part of a curriculum I had no desire to have delivered to me. I have, as Raymond M. Douglas writes in his book On Being Raped, gained knowledge, but “not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better not to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me” (4). I could have happily gone through my educational career without these particular insights. I could even have written my dissertation on representations of sexual violence without the added expertise of lived experience.

Having finished my PhD, I now leave the hallowed halls of UBC behind, hoping that in some small measure, they have become a better place for survivors because I and others have spoken up, and because panels like the one I was privileged to be a part of are doing the work that they are doing. I am aware of the fact that the increased scrutiny of the university’s response to sexual assault has been a nightmare for students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike.

51OmLU9LfHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But I don’t think that the fact that UBC is currently under pressure to respond thoughtfully is a bad thing. Following the publication of his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer faced incredible amounts of backlash by the town of Missoula itself, by the University of Montana, and by the police force. As reported by Jacob Baynham on Outside Onlineone woman left this comment on Krakauer’s Facebook page: “I am so disappointed in the title of your book,” said one woman on Krakauer’s Facebook page. “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” But as Krakauer points out, Missoula is just one example of the epidemic of sexual violence across America. Missoula could just as easily be Stanford, could just as easily be here in Vancouver. But the conversation sparked by such intense scrutiny has, at least as far as is being reported, created actual change. After a town hall forum in Missoula, Baynham reports that Krakauer was asked if he’d send his daughter to the University of Montana. “I would,” he said. “I think the university is safer now than most schools. Missoula is a lot better than most places. You have this big problem, but you’ve gone a long way toward fixing it.”

I think that the University of British Columbia can be a Missoula: not the school to be made a painful and humiliating example of, but the school that paves the way for comprehensive change at all levels of administration and campus life, and does in a way that does not simply prioritize supporting sexual assault survivors because it will look like a better strategy for fundraising. Call me an idealist, but I think it’s possible. And there are so many people, myself included, who want to make that happen. There are countless people with whom our panel consulted of the course of our work. The university’s draft sexual assault policy has been released, and both campus and community stakeholders are invited to give feedback here.

But for now, I take my leave from my alma mater, look for brave new worlds. There is so much anti-violence work out there to do, and I will continue to do it. May the development of the UBC sexual assault policy and the action plan be an honest process, tempered by humility and by courage. For all of the survivors of sexual assault who live and work at UBC: I love you, I am in awe of you, I believe you.

Much luck and much love,



“To Speak is Never Neutral”: A Photo & Audio Journal Entry

There’s a kind of nervousness, I think that goes along with speaking out about anything. Is this the right time? Am I saying the right things? And what will people think of me? What happens if they know my deepest secrets, and I can’t take them back? 

And I think that initially there’s a kind of pride that goes along with telling. With the sadness, there’s a bit of adrenaline, like you did this thing you thought you could never do. And you have your family and friends supporting you, and it’s really powerful.

But then, once the telling is over, when the news cameras or the reporters leave, or even when you’re just walking out of your therapist’s office and going home, or after you hang up the phone after talking to a friend, a strange sense of quiet comes over you. And you ask yourself: what the hell did I just do? 

Then all that confidence just kind of melts away, and it’s as if you know that you never, ever want to talk about it again, that price you pay for talking about it – the price of remembering it all, of feeling vulnerable and exposed, is just too much. So you go quiet again. 

But that doesn’t last very long, because you start to just feel so fucking angry, so incredibly consumed with rage, all stuff that you started to let out when you spoke for that first time is coming out, but now you’re alone and you’re expected to deal with this deluge of emotions yourself. It’s a total Pandora’s Box.

Once the anger passes you might feel sad. And that brave face you wore for the cameras is swollen from crying and you can barely breathe through the tears and you there’s sinking feeling that you almost wish that THIS is what they’d seen, because this is the real shit that you have to deal with, this is what happens in the middle of the night when people aren’t around to listen.

But you do what you can. Maybe you make art, or go for a run, maybe you play music, and you get lost for while in something else. Maybe you speak about something that’s completely unrelated – you express yourself in different ways.

There are, of course, moments of irritation. When you see comments on articles, or people seem dismissive, and you’re really fucking tired of speaking out because why is this still happening? Why do we still live in a world where violence continues to perpetrated? And sometimes people are just so ridiculous in their attempts to legitimize it,  and you’re just tired of rhetoric, and the dismissal, and the blatant disregard.

But, you know, you can have joy, too. And that joy can be a result of speaking out, or it might not be. You can be happy at the same time as you’re sad, you can have mixed feelings about it. There’s not one single way to feel about having spoken out. And those who wish to mandate your joy, or tell you that because you seem happy are therefore you must be totally over it, they need to just shut the fuck up.

I think ultimately after speaking out, there’s a need for momentum, after that initial moment of catching your breath. That if you can just keep creating, singing, dancing, running, being, going on with your life, that maybe speaking out wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe what happened doesn’t feel like it is going to consume every single moment forever.  And maybe, just maybe, you helped somebody. Even if (especially if) that person was yourself. 

Bodies That Shatter: A Spoken Word Piece on the Politics of the Body

I need to talk about the body. About my body. About the bodies of others.

I need to talk about how the body frightens us.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather embrace the veneer of slogans about how we must want it enough, try hard enough, visualize our beach-perfect bodies enough, instead of sitting with the discomfort of what leads us to the kitchen to swallow the feelings we’ve been taught how to hide. And the shame that bubbles up in our chests when the messages that our bodies are failures are crammed down our throats, not only by the magazines that confront us at the check-out stand but by the well-meaning friends who check-in to ask how we’re doing and if we’ve lost weight yet.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather contend that “strong is the new skinny” when strength is not only about the number of reps you complete at the gym or the visibility of your abdominal muscles but the strength of sharing your deepest traumas, of surviving the rape or the miscarriage, the abuse or the disappointment, the heartbreak or the nightmares, of living with cancer or lupus, AIDS or chronic pain, or getting through the day when it would be easier to just give up.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather make claims that all illnesses and disabilities and emotional blocks can be cured by intensive exercise, by gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, meat-free, sugar-free, green smoothies and whole foods and dubious, unscientifically proven weight-loss supplements because the terror of being confronted with our own misery, morbidity, and mortality, is too much to bear for a society that thinks they can purchase happiness, health, or the ability to live forever.


But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather say that the weight-loss industry is a means of empowerment, a means to combat the crises of obesity and poor health without dismantling the capitalism that enables industrialized food systems and weight-loss industries alike to flourish. We would rather hide the bodies that are not perfect, capitalist drones, the bodies that unsettle the neoliberal idea that individualism and hard work are enough, the bodies that remind us that we are flesh and blood rather than well-oiled machines.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We’d rather pretend that conformity is key, and that biodiversity is a myth. We’d rather believe that there is one model of health, one model of beauty, one model of the able body, the able mind. We’d rather pretend that the promotion of fitspiration can change the health of a generation without realizing that we are repeating the same message over and over. And the most frightening thing is the well-meaning tokens, the well-meaning slogans that act like Trojan horses for a eugenics of body-based shame.

But we have to talk about that. 

We need to understand the body as a place of intersectionality, that among the tangles of neurons and veins and tendons are the influences of economics, politics, cultures, and society.

We need to talk about the thoughts that we harbour about what constitutes health and wellness are based on deeply-rooted systems of oppression. We need to talk about the fact that working hard in the gym for hours is a different kind of labour than the backbreaking work carried out by the bodies of many, and that despite the complaints we articulate about the laziness we hate, we would rather our laborious physical activity be a personal choice than an economic necessity.

We need to talk about the isms, the ableism, the racism, the sizeism, the sexism, and the biggest ism of all, the capitalism that underlies the profit that preys on the pursuit of perfection. That the gurus of health are the gurus of wealth and that we inevitably pay the price of profit.

We need to know that Monsanto’s genetic modification of crops is not disconnected from the attempts to genetically re-structure the shape of our society by cultural genocide. Think about what it means to put a patent on a plant, to isolate and regulate genetics under the rule of law.

I know it’s hard to talk about.

I know it’s hard to change a lifetime of indoctrination about the politics of the body.

I know it’s hard to acknowledge that the well-meaning words we say can slay the spirit of another, and that the bruises we leave in others’ bodies run so deep; I know this might make it hard to sleep.

But the bodies that shatter are the bodies that matter.

And that’s worth talking about.

“then they came for me”: why my activism is not a choice.

It’s been years since I read this quotation by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Hitler’s Nazi regime:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated what Niemöller meant: after all, I am neither a staunch Socialist, nor was I a union member until I started working, nor am I of Jewish descent. I used to think that there would be very many “and then they came for…because I was not” before I would be forced to speak out about anything. I see this happening with many of my friends, who refuse to speak out, or who think that their behaviors or attitudes don’t matter, because they believe that they and their friends aren’t affected by issues of homophobia, sexism, or racism. I used to think that way too. Until I started to realize that those who are out to injure, destroy, and shame….are a lot closer to coming for me than they are not.

I used to think that I could just wait. Wait for language to change, wait for slurs to be slowly phased out until they become antiquated. Wait for policies to be changed by those who are actually in power. Wait to have children, so that I could raise both my boys and my girls to be sensitive about gender/sexuality/race/class issues. Wait. Just wait.

I can’t do that. And I think that if most of us think long and hard about it, neither can any of us.


First they told me they were glad I was not or did not look like a lesbian or a man,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I identify as cisgendered and heterosexual.

and then I realized that it is erroneous to equate appearance
with a particular kind of sexuality or gender
and that if i were gay, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from men who rage about the humiliation
of having accidentally hit on a woman they didn’t realize was a lesbian
and that if i were transgendered, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from those who would consider me “monstrous” or “unnatural”
    and so I have decided
    that I will never have my sexuality or gender
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made jokes about black people.
and at first I did not speak up–
because I am only a quarter black.

and then I realized that if this were the 1950s
that it would not matter how little black blood I had
that I would be told I was a second-class citizen
asked to use separate entrances
and drink from separate water fountains
and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they denied their white privilege.
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am only three-quarters white.

And then I realized that being able to “pass”
as ethnically ambiguous
as closer to white than some
has protected me from a lot of racial violence
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made fun of uneducated workers,
and at first I did not speak up–
because I have a university education.

And then I realized that I have had the great fortune
of the access and means to paying for an education
not least in part because of the financial means
of the middle-class family I was born into
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my intelligence or my knowledge
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said that prostitutes were asking to be raped,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not a sex worker.

and then I realized that the response and support I have received
when I finally reported and sought help for my own rape
were largely because both the law and society
still thinks you’re a more credible victim if you’re
virginal and non-sexualized
   and so I have decided
    that I will not have my justice
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said all of those things,
and they also said that accessibility was not a concern
that healthcare for refugees was not a priority
that access to nutritious, whole food was merely a triviality
that land claims and the historical legacy of racism not their guilt to bear
that financial support for seniors was adequate

and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not disabled
a refugee
or hungry
or Indigenous
or elderly

but in the end
because I AM a human being
I will not have
my liberty
my health
my freedom,
my identity
my sexuality
my gender
my sense of self
my humanity
    come at the price of another’s.